Shoulder injuries, particularly to the rotator cuff, can be very painful, debilitating and also slow to heal as many professional athletes can attest. Speeding up shoulder injury healing has been the focus of much research and one particular type of treatment that has received a lot of attention in recent years is the application of stem cell therapy to promote shoulder healing.
While there has been a proliferation in clinics offering stem cell therapy for the treatment of a wide range of soft tissue and joint injuries, is it really a good treatment option? Here, we’ll look at whether or not stem cell therapies are truly useful in the treatment of shoulder injuries.
What are stem cell therapies?
Stem cell treatments and therapies have been a popular area of research for a wide variety of conditions. For years, they have been used in a range of settings such as growing skin stem cells for skin grafts, and blood stem cells to combat diseases.
The patient’s own stem cells are harvested – either from fatty tissue or bone marrow – and then delivered into the affected area; the theory behind the science is that your body’s own repair mechanisms are used to promote healing.
During the healing process, it is thought that the grafted stem cells are able to differentiate into specialised cells, whether that is muscles, tendons, cartilage or bone, depending on the nature of the injury. They also cause other important cells and growth factors to flood the site of the injury, repairing and regenerating the damaged tissue.
In terms of shoulder treatment, stem cell injections are provided into the affected area. There is no standardised approach and clinics will differ in terms of how the procedure is performed, but generally, it is carried out using image guidance and it’s a minimally invasive treatment. The stem cells are harvested from the patient’s fatty tissue or bone marrow, before being separated and consolidated and injected into the shoulder.
Stem cell therapy is largely used to treat partial tears and minor to moderate injuries. If the injury is severe or there’s a full tear, the only effective treatment option would be surgery.
Studies reveal little evidence to show these therapies work
There have been two crucial studies published recently within the Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery. Both reveal there is actually little evidence to suggest stem cell therapies work.
Clinical data to support the claims of the effectiveness of stem cell therapies is limited. Furthermore, there appears to be a lot of patient-specific factors which can contribute towards the effectiveness of these therapies. These include medications, age, sex and genetic factors.
The studies concluded that although these treatments have great potential based upon laboratory studies, a lack of clinical data for their use in shoulder treatments is extremely limited.
Why are stem cell therapies in shoulder treatment controversial?
At the moment, stem cell therapies within shoulder treatment are considered controversial. This is because of a couple of factors, including the fact that there’s little evidence to back up their effectiveness.
These treatments are costly, and many medical insurance policies don’t cover them. This can be an issue for patients who want to undergo the procedure.
As the results are unproven, it also means that patients could be delaying the treatment they need. If they undergo the injections which ultimately aren’t effective, the injury could become worse. This would then mean they need to undergo more invasive treatment, often surgical, to rectify the problem.
At the London Shoulder Specialists, while we always stay abreast of the latest developments and we are keeping a close eye on the potential of stem cell therapy in the treatment of shoulder injuries, we advise patients to understand the limitations. With very little clinical data to support the effectiveness of these treatments, more recognised and proven techniques should first be considered. If you’re suffering from a shoulder injury, book a consultation with a specialist today. They will be able to diagnose the problem and recommend the best course of treatment.
To arrange a consultation with the London Shoulder Specialists, call +44 (0) 203 195 2442.